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Hunting for Previous Coronavirus Pandemics Using Corpus Linguistic Analysis of 19th Century British Newspapers

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<mark>Journal publication date</mark>1/01/2021
Publication StatusPublished
<mark>Original language</mark>English


COVID-19 is the first known coronavirus pandemic. Nevertheless, the seasonal circulation of the four milder coronaviruses of humans – OC43, NL63, 229E and HKU1 – raises the possibility that these viruses are the descendants of more ancient coronavirus pandemics. This proposal arises by analogy to the observed descent of seasonal influenza subtypes H2N2 (now extinct), H3N2 and H1H1 from the pandemic strains of 1957, 1968 and 2009, respectively. Recent historical revisionist speculation has focussed on the influenza pandemic of 1889-1892, based on molecular phylogenetic reconstructions that show the emergence of human coronavirus OC43 around that time, probably by zoonosis from cattle. If the “Russian influenza”, as The Times named it in early 1890, was not influenza but caused by a coronavirus, the origins of the other three milder human coronaviruses may also have left a residue of clinical evidence in the 19th century medical literature and popular press. In this paper, we search digitised 19th century British newspapers for evidence of previously unsuspected coronavirus pandemics. We conclude that there is little or no corpus linguistic signal in the UK national press for large-scale outbreaks of unidentified respiratory disease for the period 1785 to 1890.